B.B. Warfield, a prominent theologian and former professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, once said this concerning the doctrine of the Trinity: “The doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of the Christian religion. Without this doctrine, the whole edifice of Christian faith and practice crumbles.”
In this blog post, my goal is to determine whether Mr. Warfield’s statement is accurate by exploring the Biblical basis of the Trinity, it’s historical development in the early Church, and the practical implications of this doctrine for Christian belief and practice. Let’s begin!
Importance of Understanding the Trinity in Christian theology and practice
The Trinity teaches the belief in one God who exists in three distinct persons: the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. These three persons are co-equal, co-eternal, and share the same divine essence, while remaining distinct from each other.
The Father is considered the creator of the universe and the source of all divine authority. The Son, Jesus Christ, is the Word of God made flesh, who lived a sinless life and died on the cross to save humanity from sin. The Holy Spirit is the presence of God in the world, guiding and empowering believers to live according to God’s will. Together, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit represent the three-fold nature of God.
Having established a foundational understanding of the concept of the trinity, it is now necessary to delve deeper and examine various scriptural references that support this doctrine.
II. The Trinity in Scripture
Genesis 1:26 states, “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.” This verse indicates a plurality within the Godhead, as God refers to Himself in the plural form “us.” Gordon Wenham, in “Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15,” suggests that the plural form in Genesis 1:26 is used to emphasize God’s deliberation and consultation within Himself before creating humanity, and that this supports the idea of a plurality within the Godhead.
However, others argue that this verse is simply a literary device and should not be used to defend the nature of God. One scholar who argues that the plural form in Genesis 1:26 is a literary device rather than indicating a plurality of persons within the Godhead is Claus Westermann. In his book “Genesis 1-11: A Continental Commentary,” he writes:
“The plural [in Genesis 1:26] is not to be understood as the plural of the Trinity, but as a plural of fullness, expressing the majesty and plenitude of God. In the Old Testament, the plural form is often used in a majestic or representative sense, so that it does not necessarily refer to a plurality of persons (Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1-11: A Continental Commentary. Fortress Press, 1984, p. 147.)
One scholar who would argue against Westermann’s interpretation is Ronald S. Hendel, who suggests that the plural form in Genesis 1:26 does in fact refer to a plurality of divine beings. In his article “The God of the Fathers and the Worship of the Gods,” he writes:
“The notion that the plural in Genesis 1:26 is a ‘plural of majesty’ or a reference to angels or the heavenly council has been widely discredited. The plural Elohim refers to a plurality of divine beings, of which Yahweh is only one (Hendel, Ronald S. “The God of the Fathers and the Worship of the Gods, Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 126, no. 1, 2007, p. 30.)
While scholars continue to debate the meaning of Genesis 1:26 in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity, there are other verses in the Old Testament that are often cited as evidence for this doctrine. One such passage is Isaiah 48:16, which suggests a plurality within the Godhead.
Isaiah 48:16 declares: “Come near to me and listen to this. ‘From the first announcement I have not spoken in secret; at the time it happens, I am there. And now the Sovereign Lord has sent me, endowed with his Spirit.”
In this passage, God the Father, who is referred to as the Sovereign Lord, is sending a divine person (me) in the context of this passage, who is endowed with the Spirit. The “me” referred in this passage is not in reference to Isaiah, but rather a divine person.
The key phrase in Isaiah 48:16 is “וְעַתָּה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֲדֹנָ֖י יְהוִ֑ה וְרוּחִ֖י” (ve’atah sh’lachani Adonai YHWH ve’ruchi). The phrase “sh’lachani Adonai YHWH” means “the Lord YHWH has sent me,” and the phrase “ve’ruchi” means “and my Spirit.” These phrases point in favor of a plurality within the Godhead, and are often understood as evidence for the Trinity.
In the New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples in the great comission of Matthew 28:19 – “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Clearly, Jesus identifies the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as being equally important and united under one name.
The construction of the phrase “in the name of” is singular in the Greek, which defends the position that there is only one unique name that belongs to the Godhead. Furthermore, baptism in this verse implies that all the names are involved in this act of being born again and identifiying with God, suggesting that they are all of equal importance and therefore divine.
Another passage that proves Jesus was God in the flesh is John 1:1-3. It reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” This passage identifies Jesus Christ, referred to as “the Word”, as both God and distinct from God the Father.
Scholar Leon Morris notes, “The Word was not identical with God, but he was also not separate from God. He was with God and yet he was God” (Morris, L. The Gospel According to John, 1995). Furthermore, scholar Craig Keener notes, “If the Word was involved in creation, he must be of the same nature as the Creator” (Keener, C. S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 1, 2003).
Finally, the use of the present tense in the phrase the word of God argues that the divinity of Jesus is not a past event but a perpetual, everlasting reality. Scholar Burge says, “The present tense affirms the continuing existence of the Logos as God (Burge, G. M. The Gospel of John: An Introduction and Commentary, 2010).
While the concept of the Trinity can be traced back to scripture, the development of the doctrine as a formal theology within Christianity took place over several centuries.
III. Historical Development of the Trinity
In the early church, while the term Trinity is not used, we see Scripture references in the New Testament that present the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as distinct but also in unity as we argued in the previous section.
Tertullian, a prominent theologian of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, was the first to use ther term “Trinity” to describe the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He argued for the co-eternity and distinctions of each member of the Godhead.
Another church father, Athanasius of Alexandria, who was a biship in the 4th century, played a key role in defending the divinity of Jesus Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity against Arianism.
Arianism, also known as the Arian controversy, was a dispute that took place around the teachings of Arius. He denied the full divinity of Jesus and said he was a created being. This led to further discussion in debates through many church councils.
For instance, The council of Nicaea (325 AD) affirmed the full divinity of Jesus and his equality with both the Father and the Holy Spirit. Then the council of Constantinople (381) further elaborated on the doctrine and more confidently asserted the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Finally, the council of Chalcedon (451) affirmed the two natures of Jesus: fully human and fully divine.
After the Council of Chalcedon, there were some theological controversies and debates over the precise nature of the hypostatic union and the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ. However, these debates did not result in any significant changes to the doctrine of the Trinity itself.
There were some theologians who made contributions to articulating and clarifying the idea of the Trinity. For example, Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) was inspired by the Trinity to posit his “ontological” argument for the existence of God. This focused on God being the greatest posible being, noting both the unity and simplicity of God in the concept of the Triune nature.
Furthermore, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), gave a fuller picture of the Trinity when he wrote his works on reasons for God, balancing both the importance of faith and revelation. And finally, Karl Barth (1886-1968) is known for his neo-orthodox approach towards theology and the Trinity. Barth stressed the notion of the Trinity as a dynamic and active community of love, and that the divine persons are united in a shared mission to redeem and restore the world.
The historical approach to the doctrine of the Trinity has established the foundational framework for understanding God as three persons in one, but contemporary perspectives on the Trinity seek to explore and expand our understanding of this central Christian doctrine.
IV. Contemporary Perspectives on the Trinity
In modern theology today, there are three specific approaches that is popular. First, social Trinitarianism highlights the social and relational aspects of the Trinity. The main focus is how the Trinity is united in a community of love, seeking to help us understand how to view social justice, ethics, and inclusive language for God.
The second approach is perichoresis, which is the idea of mutual indwelling within the Trinity, showing both distinction yet inseparable aspects. The goal is to see how our own relationships with others affect God and mimic the way He coordinates within the divine Godhead. Some examples of this has been the idea of “embrace of God” from theologian Miroslav Volf, feminist theology focusing on intersectionality, and interfaith hospitality for finding common ground.
The final contemporary perspective on the Trinity is process theology. This view teaches that God is constantly evolving in relation to the world. It seeks out to explain how the Trinity is involved in the ongoing process of creation, redemption, and restoration to humankind. The goal is to explore the creativity of humanity, the problem of evil, and the nature of what it means to be a human.
Explanation of how the Trinity informs Christian worship, ethics, and mission.
As far as worship, the Trinity should be involved in the liturgical language and imagery that reflects God’s nature through hymns and spiritual songs. For example, in many Christian worship services, the congregation begins and ends with the Trinitarian formula, such as “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Furthermore, the liturgical language in worship shows our commitment to each distinct person of the Trinity. For example, the classic hymn by Reginald Heber entitled: “Holy, Holy, Holy” makes the statement: God in three persons, blessed Trinity! Stuart Hine has also written a powerful hymn sung by millions – “How Great Thou Art” that uplifts the Triune God. These are just a few examples of the many songs that celebrate each person of the Trinity in Christian worship.
In regards to ethics, the Trinity has important implications for relatonships, community, the image of God, self-giving, justice, and reconciliation. The doctrine tells us that God is a community of three persons who are in perfect relationship with one another, and that is how we should value relationships and community over individualism and self-interest.
A powerful illustration of God’s love and self-giving was when the Father sent his Beloved Son, Jesus, to take away the sins of the world. Jesus was perfect, without sin, and the only way to save humanity and get back into right relationship with God was for the Son to take the punishment. Scripture says that “He who knew no sin became sin for us so that we might receive the righteousness of God.”
These important characteristics of the Trinity should catapult us to justice and reconciliation with others. It should constantly remind us of the forgiveness and unconditional grace we received from God. So that when we are bitter or angry towards others, we can remember what Jesus had done for us.
He even said while on the cross being punished: “Forgive them Father, for they do not know of what they are doing.” Jesus also told us to love our enemies and to pray for others who persecute us. If everyone truly lived this way, we would have world peace.
In this essay, we discussed whether or not B.B. Warfields claim that the Trinity was the foundation of Christian doctrine was supported by the Bible, Church history, and our contemporary world today. We then looked at the biblical basis of the Trinity itself, which is rooted in the teachings of the Old and New Testaments that there is one God who exists in three distinct persons – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We also explored the historical development of the doctrine of the Trinity in the early church, particularly how the early Christians grappled with the nature of God and the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This led to the development of key creeds, such as the Nicene, Constantinople, and Chalcedon Creeds, which helped to solidify the doctrine of the Trinity as an integral aspect of Christian belief.
Furthermore, we examined the practical implications of the doctrine of the Trinity for Christian belief and practice. In the realm of worship, the Trinity provides a framework for understanding the communal nature of God and the importance of relationships and community in Christian worship. In the realm of ethics, the Trinity emphasizes the value of relationships, love, self-giving, justice, and reconciliation, which have important implications for how Christians engage with the world around them.
Overall, our conversation highlighted the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity for Christian belief and practice, and how it has practical implications for contemporary issues in the world today. After reviewing the evidence, I would agree with Mr. Warfield that the Trinity is indeed the foundation of theological doctrine, and without this understanding, the Christian faith and practice would crumble. What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. Have a blessed day!
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